4.01.2008

Wedman Stars in Win as '86 Cs Move to 58-13

Winning and losing a basketball game quickly becomes secondary when an extraordinary 7-foot-4-inch athlete is carried off the court on a stretcher without being able to move his lower extremities.

Yes, the Celtics vanquished the Houston Rockets, 114-107, at the Garden last night. And wasn't Scott Wedman wonderful, firing up those graceful jumpers to the tune of 9 for 10 and 11 valuable fourth-quarter points? And, yup, there's no denying that Larry Bird was typically brilliant with his 36 points and general savoir faire. But for many in the capacity Garden crowd of 14,890, the fun went out of this one with 2:15 remaining in the first half when Sampson went up for a offensive rebound and then hit the floor with his back and head.

After being attended by Celtics' team physician Thomas Silva and the respective trainers, Sampson was carried off in the same position in which he had landed, which was on his left side. He was then taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was given a neurological examination (negative) and X-rayed for a possible back fracture. All the crowd knew was that a man playing a sensational game had sustained what could have been a very serious injury, and it would have been quite all right with the majority of customers had the game been called off and everyone sent home.

But the show always goes on, and thus did the Rockets respond to the loss of Sampson and his statistical contribution (17 points, 5 rebounds) by playing the Celtics evenly until there was just over seven minutes left in the game. And while nothing comparably bad could happen to them, there were still legitimate misfortunes to come.

When Sampson went up for the fateful offensive rebound, the Rockets were in front by a 53-51 score, having led from 2-0 and repelled a potent first- quarter Boston run of 10-2 that tied the game at 22. It's true that at the time of the Sampson injury the Celtics were making a run (they had trailed by 8 at 46-38), but it's also true that Sampson had been the best player on the floor up to that time, in synch with an unstoppable, Kareem-like hook.

Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon had combined to bother Boston's inside game, triggering a searing fast break that accounted for 17 of Houston's points as the visitors moved to a 36-27 one-quarter lead. Suffice to say that until Sampson fell down, the Rockets had every reason to think it was going to be their night.

Anyway, give the Celtics credit for recognizing their opportunity. A lefty follow-up by Wedman (19 in his best game since Kevin McHale's return) gave the Green their first lead of the game at 54-53, and a disputed buzzer-beating follow-up by Danny Ainge (the Celts had a 16-4 first-half edge in second- chance points) sent them into the locker room up by four at 61-57.

The third period was interesting, for, despite having lost Sampson, despite losing Rodney McCray on personals with 3:09 left in the quarter, despite major foul trouble on the part of the noble Olajuwon (fifth personal with 9:24 left), despite being hit with a blast of 12 Bird points (6 coming in the span of nine seconds on a three-point shot and a turnover-fueled three-point play) and despite this whole business taking place on the road, they emerged from the period down by just one at 88-87.

In another place and time their gritty effort might have earned a "W." But the Celtics have a lot of offensive options, and so it was that Wedman ruined the Rockets. Among his 11 points and five fourth-quarter baskets (in five attempts) were a go-ahead three-pointer (93-91) and a 20-footer that broke the game's final tie (99-97). Throw in a big hoop by Ainge (a 20-foot pull-up making it 103-97 after a Dennis Johnson steal) and a Bird crucnh-time post-up clinic and the undermanned Rockets, who shot a frosty 40 percent in the second half (19 for 47), just couldn't keep pace.

If this were 1930s Hollywood, the Rockets would have won one for the Big Guy. Instead, it's the real world of the 1980s and when they left the Garden they had a lot more to think about than a lost ball game.

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